A humble public servant
Charles ‘Chuck’ Kurfess makes mark in legislature and law
Ohio State law school students frequently work while going to school, but surely few have even tried to do what Charles “Chuck” Kurfess ’57 JD accomplished in the mid 1950s.
By the time he graduated from law school, the Wood County native had won a race for an Ohio House of Representatives seat and served his first term. But that double duty by this Buckeye, now 87, was a mere prelude to a career as a dedicated public servant.
Kurfess spent more than two decades in the Ohio House, including five years as House speaker, and later two terms as a Wood County Common Pleas Court judge.
Today, as he looks back, some of the biggest rewards are very personal ones.
“It is very satisfying that a number of the kids who worked for me, when I see them as I travel the state and the country, have such good memories of working for us in the legislature,” he said. “That means a lot to me now."
First elected speaker of the Ohio House in 1967, Kurfess led that legislative body as it transitioned from a one-county, one-representative system in which rural members dominated the legislature to the 99-member system in place today.
Lee Leonard, a longtime Columbus Dispatch statehouse reporter, said Kurfess’ speakership is probably best remembered for a year-long legislative fight in 1971 over enactment of a state income tax. With Democratic Gov. John Gilligan pushing the tax, and many of Kurfess’ Republican colleagues adamantly opposed, he was in a tight spot. Ultimately, Kurfess supported the measure and brought enough of his fellow Republicans with him to help minority-party Democrats pass the controversial tax.
“He showed remarkable political wisdom and strength, but it was a long battle,” Leonard said. And it cost many Republican members their seats in the years that followed.
“He really stood on principle of doing what was right, instead of making sure that people got re-elected,” Leonard recalled. “That’s a big thing, especially in today’s political society.”
Kurfess left his House seat in 1978 to seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination. He broke ground by naming a female running mate — Ashland University administrator Lucille Ford — as his choice for lieutenant governor, but he said he didn’t choose her because of her gender.
“It was because she fit exactly what we were looking for and was so well respected in her community and her field,” said Kurfess, who lost the GOP primary to former Gov. Jim Rhodes.
Jo Ann Davidson, who became Ohio’s first female House speaker in the 1990s, said Kurfess was ahead of his time in supporting women for major offices. She called his choice of Ford “a major step forward” for Ohio women.
She also admired his work to advance legislative abilities in Ohio and other states through the National Conference of State Legislators. “He understood we needed to look outside the borders of Ohio for good ideas to bring back to our state,” she said.
Fallout from the income tax fight in 1971 probably doomed his chances of beating Rhodes in the primary, Kurfess said. “Some people would say it probably cost me a chance to be governor,” he said. “If that’s the case, then so be it. What the H.”
Kurfess said he is most proud of his work as House speaker to “advance the functioning of the General Assembly as a legislative body.” Those included reducing the influence of seniority, creating an independent legislative budget office, giving every lawmaker at least one staff member and allowing more debate on the House floor.
Later in his career, Kurfess practiced law in Wood County and eventually served two terms as a common pleas court judge. While on the bench, his aim was to be “a juror’s judge,” one who kept jurors involved by letting them ask questions of expert witnesses when appropriate.
While Kurfess’ work has positively impacted millions of Ohioans, his humility seems always at hand.
“If I could do it all over again,” he said, “I think I could do it so much better in all aspects.”